“Perhaps you’ve noticed the trend among certain people these days,” wrote Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times the other day, “to decide that certain other people are not living acceptable lives and must be reformed.”
Yes. There certainly is a lot of that going around.
You can see it in the comments from Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus—who says homosexuals are “barbarians” who need to be “educated” and “disciplined.” The Bachmanns own a clinic that tries to make homosexuals go straight—a procedure as likely to succeed as trying to make a straight man gay.
You can see the trend in Arizona, Alabama, and other states that have imposed stiff penalties for employers who choose to hire illegal immigrants—i.e., individuals who moved to the U.S. without a government permission slip.
You can see it across the country in the attempts by Christian parents to have Harry Potter books removed from school libraries, to keep children from reading stories that supposedly promote witchcraft and the occult.
And when you finished reading Genzlinger’s column of page A16 in last Sunday’s Times, you also could see the trend he wrote about just a few pages further in—on the front of the Times’ Sunday Review section. “What will it take,” asked the paper’s Mark Bittman, “to get Americans to change our eating habits?”
This is a subject of great concern to progressives today. Many of them are deeply distressed that—despite incessant lecturing on the subject—too many of their fellow citizens continue to eat what they like, rather than what progressives think they should eat.
Bittman’s answer to this dilemma is to tax “bad food” and subsidize “good food.” He is far from alone. But this answer to the problem of too much food freedom rests on two major factual errors and a moral grotesquerie. The first factual error is the belief that healthful foods cost too much. Nonsense: For the price of a single fast-food combo meal you can buy a week’s worth of fruits and vegetables.
The second error is Bittman’s claim that “efforts to shift the national diet have failed, because education alone is no match for marketing dollars that push the very foods that are the worst for us.” Donald Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, makes quick work of this foolishness—in a response to a different piece—on his blog, Café Hayek.
“Why,” he asks, “doesn’t McDonald’s simply serve raw celery? Celery being much less costly for McDonald’s to buy than ground beef and chicken patties, a raw-celery-only menu at McDonald’s would slash that company’s costs. And with its nefarious facility at using ‘advertising and marketing’ to hypnotize consumers into buying whatever it peddles (even ‘nasty killer foods’!), that fast-food behemoth will keep consumers spending as much on McCelery stalks as consumers now spend on Happy Meals and Egg McMuffins. McDonald’s profits will zoom upward!” (The answer is obvious: Consumers have the last word.)
The moral grotesquerie comes later in the piece, when Bittman offers the rationale for his scheme: Some might “argue that their right to eat whatever they wanted was being breached,” he concedes, “but public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit.” Besides, “health-related obesity costs are projected to reach $344 billion by 2018—with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government.” In short, the government should dictate what you eat for the sake of the collective good.
Bittman used to write about recipes, so perhaps he does not know of Kant’s categorial imperative, which instructs us to treat people as ends in themselves—not as mere means to an end. Using government coercion to dictate other people’s food choices in order to save money on government programs is a blinding violation of that moral precept.
Nevertheless, Bittman says it is “fun—inspiring, even” to think about the various ways government could order people about: “We” could convert soda machines to “machines that dispense grapes and carrots.” “We” could sell vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit “cheap—let’s say for 50 cents a pound—and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas. . . ”
Just one problem: “We” do not own the drug stores or bodegas—so we have no right to dictate what they stock.
The progressive campaign against obesity relies on the assumption that the individual no longer owns his or her body—rather, society as a whole does. This has some profound implications for, say, abortion. And Bittman’s contribution to that campaign should serve as a warning: Anyone who thinks it would be “fun” to use government power to dictate everyone else’s choices—from sex partner to dinner menu—should not be allowed anywhere near it.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.